Paying Homage to Honoring the Tributes

In the course of Bob Blumenthal and Christian McBride’s intellectual sparring match at the 2007 IAJE conference in January, a topic arose that—like most every subject covered in this duo’s face-offs—received a quick one-two punch before morphing into another hot-button issue.

McBride’s query was something to the effect of: Why can’t today’s A-list players (and he names our cover artist Joshua Redman as one) garner the reverence held for their remastered forefathers? Blumenthal’s response was, in so many words, that the new players aren’t as good, and that original recordings always trump tributes. Kind of Blue was fingered as the record young jazzmen should aim to outsell if they want the NEA to give them a gold star. Talk about your tall orders.

Jazz is one genre where law dictates you pay respect to its icons, over and over, forever and ever, until the end of time. From festivals booking sentimental memorial gigs at the expense of killer young bands, to reissues that sell exponentially better than new releases and the jazz-rag mandate that says you must see Miles on our cover every four months or so, the music appears, at times, to be one bloated homage, a bunch of old-timers in love with the music of their glory days.

By and large, my sense of jazz history was purchased at Borders with gift cards. The only time I ever cross 52nd Street is on my way to Iridium, and the idea of seeing Coltrane at the Half Note seems only slightly more reasonable than catching Mozart at Fridolin Weber’s parlor. I, like the few other twentysomething jazz fans I see here and there, blew it by being born too late (and not in New York). Jason Moran is great, but he’s no Monk, and Redman will never be Dexter Gordon. I get it. I got it. Good.

I’m tempted toward physical violence when I hear someone completely uninvolved with jazz tell me how it’s no longer “relevant”—a hideously subjective word used to promote entertainment trends at the expense of art (and one that equates worth with popularity). Still, jazz could learn something from more “relevant” styles and gain the generation gap it sorely needs: Is there pressure on every White Stripes fan to celebrate the Captain Beefheart catalogue? Does every 16-year-old bumping crunk hip-hop listen to the Sugarhill Gang? Hell no. It’s harder to yearn for the past when there’s so much hoopla in the present. Some will seek that history out, and rock ’n’ roll reeks of ’60s and ’70s nostalgia with teenaged Deadheads to boot, but most young pop-music fans absorb bits and pieces of the lineage through what’s happening now.

On Back East, Redman’s new Nonesuch release, he employs his youngish cohorts in ways split between what they learned from old records and what they’re learning from each other. Away from the Elastic Band’s electronics and cerebrally funky syncopations, Redman offers engaging new tunes, salutes Sonny without plagiarizing and duets with his late father, Dewey Redman, on a read of Trane’s “India” that stuns—pathos or no pathos. Simply put, it’s an incredible new old jazz album. Pick it up for your favorite jazz neophyte, along with Kind of Blue, of course.

Originally published in June 2007

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